Nov 042015

Abed Azzam, Nietzsche versus Paul. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015; 209 pages. ISBN 9780231169301.

Reviewed by Daniel I. Harris, Hunter College-CUNY

Contributions to Nietzsche studies often fall within one of two camps. On the one hand there are smaller-scale, problem-based attempts to work through the finer details of Nietzsche’s thought, often exploring one key concept or issue. Then, there are the more ambitious attempts to say something worthwhile about Nietzsche’s thought as a whole, what Nietzsche is up to, what his philosophy means. Abed Azzam’s Nietzsche Versus Paul falls into this latter camp. The essential Nietzsche, Azzam argues, is neither Heidegger’s last metaphysician nor Deleuze’s anti-Hegel, but is instead that version of Nietzsche gleaned from his confrontation with Paul. It is Paul, rather than Plato, Socrates, or Schopenhauer, who is Nietzsche’s central interlocutor, and it is by coming to terms with the logic of the conversation between the two that we are best able to appreciate Nietzsche and his work.

The six chapters deal systematically with Nietzsche’s conception of Christianity in and as the history of philosophy. Focusing on Nietzsche’s late period works from 1886–1888, Azzam’s strategy is to lay bare a developmental trajectory common both to Nietzsche’s conception of philosophy and to Paul’s conception of the church. So, Chapter One and Chapter Two deal with the Dionysian elements of the Greek and Jewish roots of Christianity, and it is suggested that just as Socrates is crucial for Nietzsche because he revalues a Greek religion of thankfulness into a life-negating worship of reason, Paul narrates an account of the church according to which a life-affirming early Judaism is later supplanted by a life-negating priestly Judaism. In Chapter Three, Azzam explores the emergence of early Christianity from these Greek and Jewish roots, while in Chapter Four, he contends that it is only possible to come to terms with Socrates through Nietzsche’s engagement with Paul. Paul is, for Nietzsche, an archetype of sorts. Thus Nietzsche provides a Pauline interpretation of Socrates: disappointed with a predominant moral worldview, Socrates endeavors to change his world by changing what counts as a good or worthwhile life. Chapter Five and Chapter Six discuss Nietzsche’s understanding of modernity, organized around the death of God and the overcoming of Christianity, and Azzam is keen to establish that Nietzsche criticizes modernity, and its inescapable Christian character, for its inauthenticity, for its basis in what he calls an inauthentic lie about its ostensible otherworldly origins.

If Paul is an archetype, it is not just Socrates, but Nietzsche himself whose own destiny is to trace a route first marked by Paul. Nietzsche tries to revalue slave morality just as Paul had revalued noble morality before him; modernity’s attempt to overcome Christianity, as Nietzsche understands it, resembles Paul’s overcoming of Judaism; Nietzsche puts forward a new truth of sorts, just as Paul puts forward a new Christian truth; and finally Nietzsche’s Hegel serves as Katechon, a delayer, the modern counterpart to Paul’s Roman Katechon. Perhaps most interestingly, Azzam suggests that Nietzsche understands himself as a second Paul, as a second figure whose revaluation of his present is so powerful as to divide history in two. Just as Saul’s becoming Paul ushers in a new Christian age, Nietzsche, who calls himself “dynamite” and “all the names of history,” credits himself with exposing the life-slandering foundations of his own time such that those who follow in his footsteps will regard him as crucial in bringing about a future set on different tracks.

As rooted as it is in its Pauline logic, this book will perhaps be of most interest to scholars in religion and theory, particularly those already invested in recent returns to Paul in the work of figures such as Badiou and Agamben, a literature to which Azzam contributes ably. For scholars of Nietzsche, however, the work offers somewhat less. One overarching concern is the broadly Hegelian reading of Nietzsche on offer here. By operating within such an interpretive horizon, Azzam surely contributes to an already-established history of interpretation, yet it is one which nonetheless faces some difficulties.  In particular, a problem which attends any attempt to read Nietzsche through Hegel is that Nietzsche neither read Hegel extensively, nor understood himself as responding to Hegel in any meaningful way. This reflects the general intellectual climate of Nietzsche’s time and place, wherein Kant and Schopenhauer loomed much larger. Nietzsche, to be sure, turned sometimes to the Hegelian language of Aufhebung and its cognates, but in a thoroughly modified form which, for instance, implied no work of the negative.

It might be, of course, that whatever Nietzsche’s actual acquaintance with Hegel’s philosophy, the logic and language of Hegel and the tradition of his interpreters provides novel and important insight into Nietzsche’s thought. My concern, though, is that rather than opening up unseen elements in Nietzsche, such a reading risks closing us off from what is truly distinctive about him. So, for instance, Azzam has Nietzsche as concerned to return us to our pre-Christian, Dionysian origins, just as Paul sought a return to Abraham. On my view, Nietzsche’s interest in origins is not about the possibility of a return to some pure past, but is instead motivated by the conviction that origins are never one, never simple. In telling a story about origins, we piece together one particular conception of our past not so that we can return to it, but so that we can be helped with our own present problems. On this view, Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality is concerned not to definitively lay out our past, but to idealize it in such a way that we might be aided in the project of coming to terms with who we at present are, creatures constitutionally conflicted by diverse lines of descent and their concomitant, warring value commitments. Elsewhere, Azzam explores at length the interrelated problems of pessimism and suffering and how they figure in Nietzsche’s response to the Christian tradition, but never engages Schopenhauer on this question. Schopenhauer, of course, built his pessimistic philosophy out of an appreciation of the ubiquity of suffering and our response to it in compassion, and influenced Nietzsche profoundly, especially in his early works but still in those later works upon which Azzam focusses, particularly the Genealogy.

Going too far down such roads, however, is undoubtedly unfair to the author, insofar as I am beginning to describe the book I wish he had written instead of the one he in fact did. Azzam’s work raises interesting questions about Paul, who certainly intrigued and troubled Nietzsche, as tied up as he was with themes of origin, overcoming, revaluation, and affirmation which surely get to the heart of Nietzsche’s project. If Nietzsche’s relationship with Paul does not quite define him, it remains an important, under-appreciated aspect of Nietzsche’s work.